Farm Horizons, February 2013

Bill Gross’ mission field is in the fields of farm families in crisis

By Jennifer Kotila

“Then, driving down the road, I thought, ‘This is it, that thing I was looking for – this is my mission. My mission field will be in the fields of farm families,’” said Bill Gross, president and founder of Farm Rescue, a nonprofit group that helps farm families in crisis.

Gross will be inducted into the North Dakota Agriculture Hall of Fame this year during the North Dakota Winter Show Saturday, March 9 in Valley City, ND for starting the nonprofit organizations.

“It is truly an honor to be inducted into the North Dakota Agriculture Hall of Fame,” Gross said. “My goal of creating a viable organization that helps farm families during unexpected crises has become a reality. Farm Rescue provides an excellent avenue for businesses and volunteers to help farm families and rural communities.”

Gross’ vision to assist farmers becomes reality

Gross, who is a Boeing 747 captain for UPS Airlines, had been on various overseas mission trips with his church between 1996 and 2000. However, he always thought there must be something he could do back home for people. Being the youngest of five children growing up on a family farm near Cleveland, ND, Gross remembers his father’s concern about what would happen to the farm should something happen to him.

During flights across the US, Gross looked down at the changing landscape of the Midwest, which was reflective of its changing demographics. Not only were there fewer family farms, but farmers were having fewer children, he said. Fewer family farms meant fewer neighbors, and those neighbors had less time to spare for a fellow farmer in need of help.

Then one day, during a long 12- to 13-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean, Gross’ was asked by a co-pilot what he was going to do when he retired. Gross told him he was going to buy a big John Deere tractor, and go throughout the land as a good samaritan, planting crops for farmers.

While discussing the topic with a friend over dinner one evening, Gross’ friend asked him, “Why wait until you’re in your 60s?” And his friend also asked, rather than just being a random good samaritan, why not help farm families dealing with a crisis, such as an illness or injury?

It was after that conversation that Gross had his “aha” moment about his mission while driving down a rural road. As he thought more about his vision, he knew that other people would want to volunteer, because his vision was about giving farmers a helping hand – not a cash hand-out, he said. He also thought that businesses that relied on farmers would be willing to sponsor equipment, since it was in their best interest to keep the maximum number of farm families in business.

Farm Rescue was launched in 2005, and about 10 families were helped through a crisis the first year.

In order to generate volunteers and sponsors, Gross purchased a $90 banner, and went to farm shows throughout the region. “I knew it would work. If I did it with all volunteers and planted farmers’ crops – it would work,” Gross said. “It’s such a visual way of helping – actually doing the work. It’s old-fashioned and noble to get the work done.”

One thing that has surprised Gross is how quickly and how large the organization has grown. Last year the organization reached a milestone, assisting its 200th family, which was one of about 50 farmers whose crops were planted or harvested in 2012 by Farm Rescue.

The organization attracts volunteers from 15 states in the US from all types of professions, including an editor from Illinois, a retired trainer of firefighters from Georgia, an information technology professional from Arizona, a pastor from Oregon, a Department of Transportation employee from New York, and a pilot from Alaska. There are also many volunteers who are farmers or work in other trades from throughout the Midwest. “There are a lot of good people, locally and throughout the US, that help,” Gross said, noting one does not need farming experience to volunteer with the organization.

Originally, Gross visualized the organization assisting only farmers in South Dakota. Today, it is a regional organization, reaching farmers in North and South Dakota, eastern Montana, Minnesota, and Iowa. In Minnesota, Farm Rescue has assisted families near Olivia, Rochester, Starbuck, and Fergus Falls.

Farm Rescue will help farmers who are going through a crisis plant or harvest up to 1,000 acres of crops every three years. The organization is now accepting applications for spring planting from farmers, which Gross said can sometimes be a challenge. Gross noted that farmers tend to be very independent, proud people who have a hard time asking for help. About 50 percent of the farmers assisted by Farm Rescue apply for assistance on their own, while the other 50 percent are referred to the organization by a friend or neighbor.

To apply for assistance, volunteer, or sponsor equipment for Farm Rescue, visit its website at www.farmrescue.org or call (701) 252-2017.

“I wish for the mission of Farm Rescue to continue for future generations with good-hearted volunteers, sponsors, and supporters who desire to leave a legacy of helping farm families and rural communities,” Gross said.

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